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Study: Playing tackle football at young age puts brain at risk

High School football has been cleared to begin as soon as next month, which appears to have players from other states now transferring to Utah. (PHOTO: Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Youths who play tackle football are more at risk of experiencing cognitive, behavior and mood problems later in life, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine also found that those who began playing tackle football before age 12 experienced such problems on average 13 years earlier than those who started playing at 12 years old or older.

“Thirteen years is a huge number,” Michael Alosco, assistant professor at the BU School of Medicine and lead author of the study published Monday in Annals of Neurology, said in a news release. “The younger they started to play football, the earlier these symptoms began.”

Researchers interviewed family and friends of 246 deceased football players for the study.

The study also found that cognitive problems showed up 2.4 years earlier for each year younger athletes played tackle football, and behavioral and mood problems set in 2.5 years earlier on average.

“There is something unique about the age you start playing football,” Alosco said. “There is something about it that is contributing to those symptoms.”

Some athletes interviewed in the study began playing football as young as 5 years old, he said.

Brain development is critical before age 12, Alosco noted, saying “those are the ages where the gray matter of your brain is really growing, the vasculature of your brain is really growing, the connections between neurons are forming,” Alosco said. “Neurodevelopment is really at its peak.”

The Utah High School Activities Association monitors such data and incorporates the finding into its policies and procedures, said Brenan Jackson, the association’s director of football.

“There’s been some significant changes in the rule books focused on limiting helmet-to-helmet contact, and blows to the head with the shoulder, forearm and hands,” Jackson said.

Utah has a sports medicine advisory committee, and that body works with the National Federation of High Schools, “looking at best practices and policies and procedures on how to limit head to head contact, but also how to have procedures in place when a student receives a concussion.”

Utah high school football is open to youths ages 14 and older, he said.

“There is a recommendation that children under 14 shouldn’t play tackle football,” Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the Boston VA Heathcare System, said in a news release. “This paper would provide some support for that.”

Researches said they were surprised that younger exposure to football was not associated with increased pathology in the brain. The findings also were consistent in players who experienced CTE — a degenerative brain disease found in people with repeated head trauma — and those who did not.

“I think that’s a really important result of this study,” said McKee, noting that 211 players in the study had been diagnosed with CTE after they died, and most of the remaining 35 showed signs of other neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

“This finding wasn’t just for people who died of CTE,” she said. “This was for people with any disorder that affecting their cognition, behavior or mood. Early exposure made them or susceptible to any later life pathology.”

McKee says early exposure to tackle football decreases a person’s “cognitive reserve,” or their ability to resist symptoms of brain disease.

The number of kids ages 6 to 12 playing tackle football dropped from 1.26 million in 2015 to 1.22 million in 2016, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football organization, has limited contact in practices since 2012.

The study was funded in part by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the Department of Defense.